Black Box Report

Black Box Report: Rondae Hollis-Medicine, and other puns

The last week might have been the most fun week of regular season Raptors basketball that I can remember. At least since that opening week of 2008-09 when the Raptors opened 3-0 and beat teams led by Andre Iguodala, Stephen Jackson, and Michael Redd. Now, the Raptors are short-handed but playing like demons, thriving on grit, defense, and chaos energy alone. And they’re beating teams led by Jrue Holiday, LeBron James, and Damian Lillard. How times have changed.

The explanation for this weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. Is it a literary journal? Maybe; it sure sounds like it. If it were, I would probably read it. There would be stories about underdogs finally being given opportunities, thriving in very expected ways, and hopefully having important places in our hearts forever, like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Unfortunately, this is not that journal. This idea is for me and Samson Folk to simultaneously look forwards and back, explicating the under-examined and trying to explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board. It’s also been brought to our attention that the Black Box Report reminds people of plane crashes. Well, we all need to remember our roots as Raptors fans. Times can be too good, and sometimes being a fan can be too easy. We need to remember where we came from.

LOOKING BACK– Folk

Games:

8:00 pm EST on Friday November 8 @ New Orleans Pelicans 122-104 W

9:30 pm EST on Sunday November 10 @ Los Angeles Lakers 113-104 W

10:30 pm EST on Monday November 11 @ Los Angeles Clippers – 98-88 L

10:00 pm EST on Wednesday November 13 @ Portland Trail Blazers – 114-106 W

Got injuries? Take some Rondae Hollis-Medicine

It’s no doubt the Raptors were greatly affected by injuries this past week. All of their notable injuries happened on this road trip, and yet here we are on the verge of a 4-1 road trip on the longest and most difficult trip of the year. There’s no doubt the Raptors had contributions from all types of places, but over the three-game span since the injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, Hollis-Jefferson shined the brightest.

In the three game stretch that included the Lakers, Clippers, and Trailblazers, Hollis-Jefferson took on the primary matchups of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard. In those games he defended 21 shots, and allowed an astounding 6 made field goals. Most of those coming on switches, considering he held Lillard, Leonard, and James to a collective 0-7 from the floor. And it’s not like the Raptors are strictly doubling with him on ball and getting torched elsewhere, his defensive rating is 94. The Raptors have terrific team defense, of course, but Hollis-Jefferson’s ability to play superstar wings straight up is of great use to a Raptors defense that wants Marc Gasol at home in the paint, and the guards up top playing like hawks.

Even though Hollis-Jefferson is somewhat limited offensively, the role he gets to play with the Raptors is maximizing what he’s good at. We saw him grab back to back offensive boards against the Blazers, the first of which he was on the floor to get. He’s a squirmy rebounder when he doesn’t have position, and a brick wall when he does. The Raptors will take any extra possessions they can, and he’s been effortless in that area. Not to mention that his ability to float into the dunker spot and operate as a release valve for the Raptors offense has been incredibly important. Siakam is initiating a lot of plays above the break, and spending a lot of time on ball. Gasol is floating out to the 3-point line for spacing purposes, who better than Hollis-Jefferson to creep in from the weak-side for dunks?

Highway to the Danger Zone (for Superstars)

It is no small job to limit LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard to a combined 19-58 from the floor. And it’s a little bit crazier when you consider that over half of the made shots came from Davis. When the Raptors defense is able to zone in on an offense that is reliant on one or a couple of players, they shut it down. This is what makes them such an intriguing team for the playoffs, and was probably the biggest factor in their championship run.

The NBA has trended toward super teams, and for good reason, they’ve worked a lot. But the Raptors’ specialty seems to be dismantling teams built that way. The Lakers relied on Kyle Kuzma down the stretch, and the Blazers on Rodney Hood, all to no avail. The combined talent of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams was just enough to get the Clippers over the hump against a Raptors team that left everything on the floor the night previous.

These aren’t just fun regular season games. They offer a real blueprint for how to beat some of the NBA’s biggest and baddest teams. Nurse and his coaching staff have game-planned wonderfully, and the players take to the game-plan as if it were scripture, acting it out with great discipline. Whether or not the Raptors have the most talent in the Eastern Conference isn’t the question, it’s whether or not they’re already shaping up to be the team that nobody wants to face.

Sometimes I’m Wrong

I have the pleasure of doing this joint-column every week with a good friend. Louis is my guy, my buddy, and my friend. Sometimes we disagree about basketball, and one of those disagreements was about Chris Boucher.

Louis’ feature on Boucher is here

I’m eating my words because Boucher was big time, in two big games. I’d been openly asking for Nick Nurse to give him a shot at more meaningful minutes, and boy-howdy did we get them. He was a huge part of the massive 4th quarter run against the Lakers, he punched in 8-points in the first quarter against the Clippers – he also had an incredible block on Harrell – and he was the first sub off the bench in the Blazers game. His motor and length were game changers in the LA back-to-back, but he also flashed finesse. He finished through contact, put up jumpers that some players might have left in their G League game, and he was unapologetic through all of it.

There can be a hesitance to some players games when they’re trying to take the next step. Malcolm Miller is a good example of this, as he played *okay* against the Blazers but was a reserved version of himself. Boucher hasn’t had time for any of that, as he’s come out to seize the day. And that’s a credit to Boucher; some players try and fit their games into what teams want, but Boucher has been nothing but his exuberant self, and he is forcing the hand of the coaching staff and organization as far as his minutes are concerned.

I wanted more minutes against the Blazers so I could see him play more pick n’ roll possessions on defense, but I’m still waiting on that. Outside of what I’m waiting to see, Boucher has been above and beyond what I thought for this year, and I’m very happy to be wrong on this one.

Looking forward – Zatzman

Games:

8:30 pm EST on Saturday November 16 @ Dallas Mavericks

7:30 pm EST on Monday November 18 against the Charlotte Hornets

7:30 pm EST on Wednesday November 20 against the Orlando Magic

Our first look at Luka

Luka Doncic is as good as they come on the offensive end. He’s a master class passer, with the vision and size to deliver the ball anywhere on the court. The only real antecedent to his passing in the modern NBA is LeBron James, who actually delivered an impressive passing game in the Lakers’ recent loss to Toronto, even if his teammates didn’t hit enough shots to make the game competitive. Doncic has incredible change of direction speed, with long strides, and underrated strength as a finisher. His ability to shift his lead foot into a drive in the opposite direction is second only to James Harden, and he can get past almost any first line of defense with ease. Seriously, Doncic is just ridiculous this year offensively.

The Raptors just got done holding an equally talented offensive player in Damian Lillard to a miserly nine points, but Lillard is small enough that defensive player of the year candidate (you think I’m joking) Fred VanVleet could hold him to 0-of-6 in 26.7 possessions. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did a solid job in his minutes against Lillard too, but VanVleet was superior in every way to Lillard. Unfortunately, VanVleet does not have the size to bother Doncic in the same way.

The last time the Raptors faced Doncic was last year, when he dropped a cool 35 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in just 35 minutes. Kawhi Leonard was Doncic’s main defender, but the Raptors switched freely, and six Raptors notched at least four possessions as Doncic’s primary defender. Doncic, rogue that he is, did equal damage against everybody. Expect Hollis-Pestering to start as Toronto’s primary defender against Doncic, or OG Anunoby if he returns from a contusion to his right eye. Hollis-Leverage or Anunoby will probably spend plenty of time on a defensive island. Doncic is too good a passer to rotate needlessly in front of him, and the Raptors will dare Doncic to be a scorer in single coverage, I’d imagine, before they open up those passing lanes and tilt their defense to stop him. When necessary, the Raptors will still switch with abandon, and they’ll use Siakam incredibly far away from his cover to clog driving and passing lanes, as they did against Lillard.

As Samson detailed above, the Raptors have had incredible success stopping teams’ number one options so far this road trip. Past success doesn’t guarantee future success, and Doncic is a new threat unlike those who’ve come before. He is great at rejecting screens and darting the other direction. A standard icing of ball screens, or forcing Doncic the opposite direction from the screen-setter, could result in rotations that expose the strong side to open Dallas shooters. When Dallas does involve extra bodies in on-ball plays, Toronto will probably switch 1-4 to eliminate unnecessary rotations. When Gasol is involved, he could double freely, forcing Doncic to make difficult cross-court passes and hope Dallas’ shooters don’t get hot. That makes the most sense to me, and it helped Toronto beat the Lakers and Blazers. Kristaps Porzingis has shown no ability this season to punish guards on switches, if it comes to that.

Doncic could lead the MVP conversation right now, averaging 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 9.1 assists, and 1.1 steals. The only thing we know for sure is that the Raptors will use plenty of different coverages throughout the night to slow him.

Home sweet home… or is it?

One of the secrets of a long road trip is that the first game home really feels like another road game. The team is still adjusting to time zone changes, and travel is travel, even if the travel brings one back to Toronto.

As far as time zones go, Toronto is at least going in the right direction. They’ve spent the majority of this trip on the West Coast, and Pacific Standard Time is exactly three hours earlier than Eastern Standard. Dallas is in Central Standard, which is one hour earlier than Eastern; therefore, Toronto has been traveling back towards their own time zone. That’s a step in the right direction. Still, the flight time is long, over three hours in the air, and there’s only one day off between games. Most of the off-day will be used for travel.

Plus, there’s a routine to road games. Teams stay at the same hotels, often eat together, go out together. Home is a return to an ordinary routine, but it’s a break from the routine of the road. Players sleep in their own beds, far apart, and scheduling is different for things like pre-game shootarounds. The Raptors will face an out-manned Charlotte Hornets in their first game back in Toronto, but there are plenty of reasons why this could be a trap game.

Because of the shifting state of Toronto’s healthy roster, the time zone shifts, and the long distance of travel from Dallas to Toronto, the Raptors will have some disadvantages. They’ll probably still be fine, but don’t expect as clean a performance as has become the norm for the Raptors. They may struggle, especially early. If anything will keep Toronto afloat, it’ll be the defense, led by Rondae Hollis-Menacing.

Have a blessed day – Samson

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